The Dakota Collegiate boys’ hockey team is hoping a little fun in the sun will lead to something nice on the ice.
The Lancers, who at 10-4-1 are in a tight race with three other teams for second place in the Winnipeg High School Hockey League’s A Division, are heading to Phoenix this week to play in the Cactus Cup tournament.
Head coach Ray Agostino is hoping the trip will be equal parts fun and productive for the team.
"It’s a good team-building thing," he said. "Going there before the playoffs is a good time of year. We find playing the same top-10 teams in the province here every day gets old."
The Lancers, who won the Cactus Cup in 2011, will be the only Canadian entry this year. They’ll face teams from Arizona, Texas, Wyoming and elsewhere in the U.S.
"The strength of the teams down there is getting good," said Agostino, who’s taken past teams to tournaments in Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago. "It’s a good break for the players. It’s a break for them to go to a warmer place. They’re excited about it."
Agostino added that the prospect of playing in a warm-weather tournament never hurts when recruiting students who are undecided between high school and other levels of hockey.
After a down year in 2011-12, the Lancers trail only St. Paul’s and Oak Park in the standings. They returned 12 players this year, including Winnipeg Blues prospects Scott Rowswell and Nolan Parrington, who Agostino calls the top forward and defenceman in the league, respectively.
"We’re probably the most consistent team I’ve played on," said Rowswell, a St. Vital right winger who’s in his third season with the Lancers. "I think we have a pretty good chance, if we all come together, of winning."
Rowswell said the team’s greatest strength is the familiarity the players have with one another. Most of the roster has played hockey together for a long time.
"The team is a bunch of people who’ve been playing together their whole lives," said Rowswell, who leads the league with 22 goals. "All the Grade 12s on the team, and even some Grade 11s have played Warriors and Vics together, and grown up together."
Along with his elite players, Agostino says the Lancers are winning with depth at forward, a strong defensive corps and two Grade 11 goalies, Johnny Hawash and Carson McFeetors.
"There’s a lot of parity in the league this year," said the coach. "The last-place team can beat the first-place team."
In order for the Lancers to make a deep playoff run, Rowswell pointed to reducing the number of defensive-zone turnovers they commit, taking fewer penalties and improving on both the power play and the penalty kill.
The upcoming trip and tournament could set the stage for a strong finish, he added.
"I can tell you, if we win the tournament it will be a huge confidence booster for the playoffs. You come closer together going on a trip like this. It can only be a positive."